Short Subject

Over the past twenty years, blockbuster shows have become a necessary evil at museums. When they succeed--and they usually do, at least financially--they increase attendance, and that's the bottom line in the exhibition business. But while they may attract big numbers economically, such shows can be aesthetically bankrupt.

At the Denver Art Museum, the situation has improved a great deal since the Muppets blockbuster of the late '70s. Just last month the DAM closed one extravaganza, 600 Years of British Painting: The Berger Collection, after drawing almost 100,000 people to the handsomely installed show. And now the museum raises the artistic stakes with Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another locally conceived blockbuster that opened in the first-floor Hamilton galleries in mid-April. Not only does this show have wide popular appeal--12,000 people saw it during its premiere week--but it's filled with good art presented in a thoughtful, intelligent way.

Toulouse-Lautrec was organized by guest curator Julia Frey, who displays an encyclopedic grasp of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the nineteenth-century French master of poster art. DAM director Lewis Sharp describes Frey as "one of the world's great experts on Toulouse-Lautrec" and notes that it was lucky for the museum that she lives in Boulder, where she's taught at the University of Colorado since 1976. Surprisingly, Frey is an associate professor of French--not a member of CU's art history department. But her knowledge of the French language--"I can read nineteenth-century French manuscripts," she points out--was extremely valuable in pulling the show together. So was Frey's experience as a studio artist: She received a bachelor of fine arts degree with a specialty in printmaking from Antioch College before going on to a Ph.D. in French from Yale.

In retrospect, Frey's knowledge of French, combined with her interest in printmaking, would seem to make Toulouse-Lautrec a natural focus of her studies. But she actually arrived at the subject through serendipity. "In the 1970s," she remembers, "I was working with the archivist of the University of Texas at Austin's manuscript collection. I was interested in an unpublished manuscript by [Gustave] Flaubert. When I finished with the Flaubert, I said, jokingly, 'What have you got for me next?' and she produced a collection of Toulouse-Lautrec family letters. As I examined the letters with a magnifying glass--the brown ink on the yellowed pages--I felt like Sherlock Holmes."

The letters were remarkable, full of previously unknown details about the artist. "It took me about fifteen minutes to realize how important they were," says Frey. Twenty years later, she's still doing work based on their contents.

The letters had wound up at UT after Carleton Lake, an Austin collector, donated them to the university's manuscript collection; he'd purchased the incunabula in 1956 from a Paris dealer who had gotten them directly from the Toulouse-Lautrec family. But as Frey researched the letters, she learned that Lake had purchased only some of the family's correspondence. The most important part of the hoard had been sold at the same time by the same Parisian dealer to another American collector, New Yorker Herbert Schimmel.

Frey met Schimmel in 1983. "MoMA was planning a Lautrec show, and I had been asked to write an essay for the catalogue," she says. "At that time, I was introduced to Mr. Schimmel. He invited me over to his Park Avenue apartment, which was filled with art-nouveau furniture. Over a glass of very bad white wine, made from grapes grown on the Toulouse-Lautrec estate in the south of France, Mr. Schimmel tried to decide if I was serious." She apparently passed the test, because Schimmel subsequently gave Frey photocopies of every Toulouse-Lautrec letter he had. "I was lucky I met him when I did," she adds. "I got to see the letters during a window of opportunity. About eight to ten years ago, Schimmel sold his entire collection to a Japanese bank, and the letters are now locked in a vault in Tokyo."

Once she had access to the Lake and Schimmel letters, Frey needed only to fill in the remaining piece of the puzzle: the thirty or so letters still in the possession of the Toulouse-Lautrec family. Through her efforts--and the miracle of photocopying--Frey finally brought the three collections together for the first time in almost half a century. She used the letters as the basis for her definitive and award-winning biography, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, a mammoth tome published by Viking Press in 1994; she's now in the process of writing another book that will focus on Toulouse-Lautrec's art.

Although Frey's expertise provided the foundation for Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit's name makes it sound as though it is a New York-based blockbuster rather than a locally inspired show. But while most of the pieces are on loan from the Met, which has the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec's work outside of France, Toulouse-Lautrec is indeed unique to Denver.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia